Part One: A Trauma Aware Approach to Breath Work


Part One: A Trauma Aware Approach to Breath Work

As mainstream society continues to jump on the breath work bandwagon it is very important we continue to prioritize safety, accessibility and choice with regards to this practice. As a mental health therapist and mindfulness coach that works extensively with athletes, I am passionate about sharing the nuances of such an individualized and powerful practice. I have also personally experienced significant trauma, chronic anxiety and panic disorder in my life and I know firsthand how challenging breath work can be due to these experiences.

Welcome to this Four Part Series on Breath Work.

  • Part One: A Trauma Aware Approach to Breath Work
  • Part Two : Understanding the Breath and Nervous System
  • Part Three: Exploring Breath Work, Where to Start?
  • Part Four: Prioritizing Safety, Accessibility and Choice in Teaching Breath Work


Lets dive in!

Breath work is often sold as a grounding and calming practice. Things I have seen or heard from people or via social media include:

“Breath is life”

“Your breath is your best friend”

“Deep breathing will calm you down”

“The breath will give you relief”

“Just breathe”

“Your breath is your anchor”

“Feeling your breath will slow everything down”


Although these aren’t necessarily wrong its far more nuanced than that.

I find that many of my athletes who try or explore breath work find it incredibly challenging and more activating at times. Many of these same athletes then share that they feel like they are “doing it wrong”. They feel there is something wrong with them because their experience doesn’t line up with mainstream society’s message that breath work is “calming” and grounding.

This is far from the truth and why I am extremely passionate about creating more conversation around safety, accessibility and choice when it comes to breath work (and really all mindfulness or somatic practices). My opinion is that anyone who is teaching or coaching breath work should be prioritizing safety, accessibility and choice.

What does that mean?

For me, the foundation of prioritizing safety, accessibility and choice in mindfulness or somatic practices (i.e mindfulness, yoga, breath work, meditation) is being trauma aware and trauma informed.

Trauma, trauma aware and trauma informed have become buzz words. This is unfortunate because it often minimizes and dismisses the impact and importance of these experiences. There are many definitions of Trauma ,  Trauma Aware and Trauma informed. I will not fully break these down in this blog (more on this soon) but for simplicity here is what I am essentially referring to:


Trauma, Trauma Aware and Trauma Informed

=> Trauma: Any experience that overwhelms your capacity to navigate it. Gabor Mate (2022) states “trauma is primarily what happens within someone as a result of the difficult or hurtful events that befall them. It is not the event themselves. Trauma is not what happens to you but what happens inside of you” (page 20). Trauma impacts us both mind and body in profound ways, ways we are still unsure of and continuing to research.  The research shows that the rates of trauma in our society are extremely high and roughly 90% of the population has experienced trauma (Elliott 1997, Kilpatrick et al, 2013).

=> Trauma Aware and Trauma Informed: To be trauma aware means that we are coming to teaching and coaching from a place of awareness and basic understanding. On a basic level we understand what trauma is (definition above) and we know that it has the potential to impact people’s lives.

To be trauma informed means that we are now using this awareness as the foundation of how we then teach and coach. We acknowledge that in any setting we are coaching or teaching in, someone probably has experienced trauma or something very difficult that will leave a lasting impact on them.  Therefore we teach and coach from this lens and honor the fact that what we might be teaching or coaching could impact people in a variety of ways. This shapes HOW we teach, coach and interact with our clients. More likely than not, someone in the room we are teaching or coaching in struggles with breath work and doesn’t feel safe “feeling” or accessing their breath, let alone manipulating it. 

*Please note: There are several frameworks, models and various terminology to describe practice that prioritizes and makes space for trauma. Ex: Trauma Aware vs Trauma Sensitive vs Trauma Informed vs Trauma Trained. If you want more information on this I suggest looking at the work of Katie Kurtz or do your own research! Its also extremely important to note how Anti-Racism and cultural humility play a role in being trauma aware and trauma informed. Additional reasources to start can be found here and here.  in Many of these will include something referred to as the “Four Rs” that you can read more about here. For the purpose of this blog on Breath Work I will utilize the above definitions when I refer to trauma and being trauma aware or trauma informed.

*Being trauma aware/informed does not mean that we have advanced knowledge or training in trauma. It does NOT mean we have the capacity to help people deal with their trauma. It does mean that we show up and facilitate in ways that prioritize safety, accessibility and choice.


Safety , Accessibility and Choice

The goal for me behind trauma aware and trauma informed teaching and coaching is to prioritize safety, accessibility and choice.

=> Safety: When I use the word safety what I mean is we use our awareness of trauma to create an environment and space that will allow an individual to step in to feeling safe both mind and body knowing that we do not get to define safety for anyone else.

The reality is we can’t ever actually create a safe space. We as teachers and coaches can do all the right things to create safety and that doesn’t ensure a client will feel safe.

Safety is a feeling that lies solely within the individual. In the words of Deb Dana “Safety is not a cognitive experience, safety is an embodied experience” (Foundations of Polyvagal Informed Practice, 2024).  This is a felt experience that is very embedded in to our mind/body system and shaped by our identity, past lived experience, and social context. Safety is directly impacted by our experiences of trauma. Two people can be sitting next to each other in your class, engaging in the same practice and one person can feel totally safe and the other will not. It is not our job as teachers and coaches to FIX this issue (this is what clinical trauma work is about) but rather set up our environment and space in ways that make safety as accessible as possible for all and then use our own teaching and coaching to help people feel in control.

If we prioritize accessibility and choice in the ways we teach breath work we are putting ourselves in a position for people to access safety because these both promote safety.

=> Accessibility: This means that people can easily step in to the practice we are teaching or coaching. You are using language, postures, and techniques that everyone can access and you are moving at a pace that helps people step in to practice in safe and supportive ways. Accessible practice is easy to understand and implement while still ultimately letting people be in control of their own practice.

=> Choice:  Choice, fundamentally is about control. People should always be in control of their own body and practice. This is all about allowing people to be in the driver seat. Choice and control are PARAMOUNT in ones ability to feel safe.

We can offer choice in a variety of ways without overwhelming our clients and leaving them confused or constantly thinking about “what” to do. Rather than 1000 options, simply offering 2 choices at times can make a difference. Choice can be as simple as “if it feels supportive you can start to lengthen your exhale but know you can always keep your breath at its natural rhythm or pace.” This provides 2 options and lets them know THEY are in control.

Your teaching and coaching in any mindfulness or somatic practice should always reflect that the client is in the ultimate control. Accessibility and choice are not about forcing a practice on to someone but rather meeting people where they are and helping them slowly grow in their practice in supportive ways.

*Much of my knowledge, understanding and definitions around these have come from the work of David Treleaven. His work and Trauma Sensitive Mindfulness trainings are comprehensive and incredibly important.


In Conclusion

Now that we have a basic understanding of the importance of teaching and coaching breath work from a trauma aware and trauma informed place lets dive in to the nuances of breath work. When we understand WHY breath work has the potential to impact people this often solidifies the importance of coaching and teaching from a trauma aware and informed lens.  Two fold, it also helps us connect with our clients and teach in more supportive ways. 

Next Up in this Breath Work Series

Part Two: Understanding the Breath and Nervous System







Mate, G., (2022), The myth of normal, Penguin Random House, new York, new York

Dana, D. (2024). Foundations of Polyvagal Informed Practice, Training. Module 5.

Elliott, D. M. (1997). Traumatic events: Prevalence and delayed recall in the general population. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 65(5), 811–820.

Kilpatrick, D. G., Resnick, H. S., Milanak, M. E., Miller, M. W., Keyes, K. M., & Friedman, M. J. (2013). National estimates of exposure to traumatic events and PTSD prevalence using DSM-IV and DSM-5 criteria. Journal of traumatic stress26(5), 537–547.

Katie Kurtz.

SAMHSA. Trauma Informed Care in Behavioral Health Systems.

Powell, W., Agosti, J., Bethel, T.H., Chase, S., Clarke, M., Jones, L.F., Lau Johnson, W.F., Noroña, C.R., Stolbach, B.C., & Thompson, E. (2022). Being anti-racist is central to trauma-informed care: Principles of an anti-racist, trauma-informed organ- ization. Los Angeles, CA & Durham, NC: National Center for Child Traumatic Stress

Esaki, N., Reddy, M., & Bishop, C. T. (2022). Next Steps: Applying a Trauma-Informed Model to Create an Anti-Racist Organizational Culture. Behavioral sciences (Basel, Switzerland), 12(2), 41.,gender%2C%20location%2C%20and%20language.


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